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Foreign ag workers fill empty positions in rural North Dakota

Spencer Bina, left, a Lankin, N.D., farmer employs Thomas Jeker, 25, from Switzerland through Communicating for Agriculture Education Programs. CAEP is a paid exchange program that benefits both farmers and people from other countries. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service1 / 2
Thomas Jeker, 25, is spending 10 months on Spencer Bina's farm near Lankin, N.D., as a trainee on a J1 visa. Jeker is from Switzerland and has a background in dairy farming. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service2 / 2

GRAND FORKS—For 15 years, Dale Zahradka has put advertisements in the local newspaper looking for help on his farm. For 15 years, he has not received a single reply.

Zahradka's farm is located 17 miles north of Michigan, N.D., a town of 294, and when asked what larger community he is located near, Zahradka said, "That's the problem, you know, there is no big town."

This is the reality for many farmers in North Dakota, and, like Zahradka, they have had to rely on seasonal foreign workers.

"Had we not had this, I don't know where our farm would be today," Zahradka said of the availability of farm help through both the H-2A and J1 visa programs.

H-2 is a category of visa first introduced in 1952 that allows workers to enter the U.S. for temporary work. In 1986, the uncapped subcategory H-2A was created specifically for agricultural workers.

J1 visas are specific to cultural exchange programs, meaning recipients are usually young trainees that are looking not only for work, but to learn about American culture and agricultural practices.

Zahradka hires workers with both H-2A and J1 visas, but said there are advantages to working with the H-2A program.

"They've been here before, there's less training involved, they have more work experience, typically a bit older in age," Zahradka said.

Though Zahradka has preferred hiring workers with H-2A visas, farmers across the nation who use the program are concerned about its inefficiencies and delays. The Securing America's Future Act, introduced in the House of Representatives this past session and co-sponsored by Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., had a provision to reform the H-2A law. It failed to pass the House in June but was tabled for reconsideration.

According to Jason Miller, vice president of Miller Honey Farms in Gackle, N.D., the system is badly in need of reform.

"It's a bureaucratic nightmare," Miller said. "Where do I begin? It's like, imagine the most poorly run government program you can, and then add yet another layer of bureaucracy on top of that."

An exhaustive amount of duplicate paperwork and inspections place an undue burden on businesses, Miller said.

Miller Honey Farms began hiring H-2A workers in 2003 as their local workforce, formerly composed mostly of high school and college students, declined. Beekeeping can present special challenges in hiring because the bees are moved around the country to pollinate different crops. Miller's bees spend parts of the year in California, Washington and North Dakota.

"Getting somebody who wants to uproot their family and live like a vagabond is tough," Miller said.

Though they could rehire workers at their various pollination locations, Miller said training new groups of workers is a strain, and H-2A workers typically have "long-term institutional knowledge of the business."

Today, H-2A workers comprise roughly 60 to 70 percent of Miller's workforce. North Dakota has been the top producing state in the nation for honey for many years, out-producing every state by at least double according to the US Department of Agriculture, and Miller said many beekeepers rely on temporary workers in their operations.

In fiscal year 2017, Job Service North Dakota processed 479 applications for H-2A visas, requesting a total of 1,493 workers. In fiscal year 2018, they expect to receive 550 applications requesting a total of approximately 1,735 workers.

Smaller operations, like Spencer Bina's farm on the western edge of Walsh County, have had success with J1 trainees.

Trainees used by farmers in this region come through agencies like Communicating for Agriculture Education Programs, based in Fergus Falls, Minn. Communicating for Agriculture has placed 75 trainees in North Dakota this summer, according to General Manager Maja Behrens. It is important to the agency, Maja said, to make sure they are not eliminating local jobs.

"Since we don't want to compete with American workers, we place a lot of trainees in a state that has low unemployment. And since we're neighboring North Dakota, we place a lot of trainees in North Dakota," Behrens said.

It has always been difficult for farmers in this region to find workers, Bina said, but he feels the problem has been worsening in recent years. While retired farmers used to come back to help during busy times, Bina said they are increasingly choosing to move to urban centers.

"Years ago you could always call that guy in town who's retired from farming, and he's looking for some side work and wants to get back in the tractor for a little while," Bina said. "They don't want to retire in a town of 100 people anymore. They want to move to Grand Forks, so they can go to hockey games and be next to Altru and all that stuff."

Though he uses exclusively J1 trainees, Bina said he gets nervous when he reads news articles talking about the possibility of limiting temporary work visa programs.

"If they shut the programs down tomorrow, there'd be a lot of hurt for a lot of guys," Bina said. "People can say what they want about immigration," he added. "Very few Americans are going to move to Lankin, N.D., for opportunities there."

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